The awesomeness of implied landscape

A brief check down the front page of this blog just now revealed to me that I apparently haven’t written about my actual study area for really quite some time. This must be changed. After all, it was not so very long ago that I sat down and had a proper go at reading a few hundred more charters, out of which I was claiming a few posts ago to have loads of new ideas, surely some of them can go here? Indeed they can. Working through charters can be pretty dull, but the Catalan ones, formulaic though they can be, are often quite descriptive about the landscape they’re set in. They do this in quite brief terms, however, because of course the landscape in question was familiar to the people involved and they didn’t need to write poetry about it. This means that some quite surprising things can almost slip past one, such as a charter from the Vic cathedral archive dealing with land in Pujolric in Balenyà in 963, which mentions that on one of the boundaries of the land concerned was, “ibso molino subterraneo”, or, in properly emphasised translation:1

‘the underground mill’

Now, OK, that might just sound kooky and perhaps slightly like the headquarters of a feudal supervillain, but consider. This is not a windmill: those hadn’t even come back to la Mancha yet as far as we know, and in any case, I don’t see how a windmill could be underground in any very convincing way.2 Yes, the actual milling parts could be, but why would you? The upper works would still need to be above ground so you’d just be making loading difficulties for yourself by not having the stones there too. It must have been a watermill, but water, of course, flows downhill, so the outflow of this water must also have been underground. Now, I can only see one easy way for that to happen, which is that the mill was stuck into a hillside above a river gorge and they’d dug it into the ground so as to use gravity to increase the water power. And when I figured that out I almost immediately wanted to set out on a trek down the Riu Congost looking for obvious holes in the cliffside around Balenyà…

You see, it’s one-off things like this that make it worth slogging through the next twenty documents where nothing exciting is listed. Except, that this one turns out not to be a one-off. Another, rather obscure, document from 989 relating to mills on the Riera de Marfà, also mentions a boundary on “ipso molino sutiran”, which, more Romance though it may be, is surely the same thing.3 (There are quite a lot of mills in this landscape: one was being sold and two more were on the boundaries, one being this one and another a “molino mediano”, the mill in the middle?)

View of the Riera de Marfà, Castellcir, Barcelona

A simple use of that FWSE for Marfà brought this up, which could hardly be bettered. Do you want to bet that habitation has never been a mill?

At that point you have to start wondering how many of these things there were and whether this is a more widely-known phenomenon than I’d expected. And, of course, it turns out it is.

View of the Molí del Blanquer, Calders

View of the Molí del Blanquer, Calders

What happened was, I mentioned this on Skype to an archaeologist friend of mine. They, despite knowing neither Spanish nor Catalonia, are nonetheless sufficiently cleverer than me with Google Maps that within five minutes they’d come up with this place in Calders, same county but four centuries later. Nonetheless, here you see how it works: the big bank to the right of the building is actually the top of the cliffside, which falls dramatically down to the Riu Calders on the other side. But it’s uphill to get there, so the workings must, necessarily, be underground, and indeed they still are.

Erstwhile workings of the Molí del Blanquer, Calders

Erstwhile workings of the Molí del Blanquer

This is not quite how I’d imagined it, but that’s just my imagination being weak, or rather, heading direct for the scenery and wishing I was out there rather than soberly considering how it should have worked. Nonetheless: sometimes the implications of a charter formula can only be measured in fantastic.


1. I first met this charter as Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), doc. no. 357, but had somehow managed to forget about this aspect till reading it again as Ordeig (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 924. Is it worth mentioning that Pujolric’s name comes from pugio regio, ‘the royal rock’? I’m not sure how this helps…

2. Admittedly, this might be quite wrong because my authority on this is still Lynn White Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford 1962, repr. 1963), pp. 80-89, and since I would no longer cite this as any kind of authority on ploughs, for example, though plenty of people do, I guess things may have changed here also, but he at least reckoned windmills as an import from the Far East that got west in the late twelfth century.

3. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 1548, which is obscure because of its condition clause stating that the recipient gets the mill and “ipsos dies nove cum ipsas noctes”, which looks like a timeshare but is costing him 26 solidi (i. e. enough for, say, three or four reasonably-sized farm or seven or eight head of cattle) and the interval within which those nine days are placed isn’t clear. Nine days a year isn’t much for that money. Nine days a month? I can’t help but wonder if is this actually time to vacate? This would, however, not be the first milling timeshare on record in this area: see Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 800-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 92-93.

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8 responses to “The awesomeness of implied landscape

  1. karen Schousboe

    What a lovely post…does the Catalan charters have the ubiquitous “ridings of the boundaries” as the early Danish? Or how came the descriptions of landscape about? Do you know of anyone who has written about this specifically? And what does FWSE stand for?

    • The person who would have written about this specifically, though in Catalan, is Jordi Bolòs i Masclans, whose various blogs can be found linked from here. There is also some stuff on the contesting of boundaries in Jeffrey Bowman’s Shifting Landmarks: Property, Proof, and Dispute in Catalonia around the Year 1000 (Ithaca 2004) as I remember, though I’m currently not in the same place as it to check. It’s only in dispute contexts that walking the boundaries comes up, and it’s not common even then; testimony in court without the ‘site visit’ is usually acceptable. I wrote a bit about charter boundaries before, in this post, and questions like yours arose then as well, and get debated between myself and Ewan Johnson who works on Normandy and Norman Sicily. Lastly, FWSE stands for ‘Famous Web Search Engine’, meaning Google, and is an affectation based on this story in New Scientist, now, annoyingly, behind a registration wall but explained towards the end of this web forum thread.

  2. A possible interesting naming derivation of these? ancient water infraestructures is suggested by Els estudis sobre onamàstica a la comarca del baix llobregat p.491-492 on the latin word canalis, arabian qanawat = channel, present in many topònims.

    • That is interesting – I’ve argued myself for occasional Arabic names getting fossilised in the toponymy of Catalunya Nova or the far edge of Catalunya Vella – but it doesn’t really apply here, does it? I think we’re looking at natural waterways in every case here, and rivers seem to be what hold their name best in terms of place-names/toponyms…

  3. Given I am currently obsessed about the comparative use of charters, is this an aspect where checking out a full-text archive (like Monasterium or Chartae Burgundiae Medii Aevi etc) would be worth doing to see if there are references in other regions? Is the terminology stable enough to do that, or is part of the problem that we don’t yet know if the same type of thing is described by this terminology elsewhere? (Meanwhile, I will look out for them now in charters I read).

    • I think that in general the ways in which mills turn up in charters is, as you might yourself say, someone’s future Ph. D. thesis. I have a future post brewing about this but it’s only going to scratch the surface and if I one day have doctoral students of my own one of them is likely to get fed this topic. That said, in this particular case the geography of the area concerned is obviously a factor; you need hills and river gorges for this to work. Whereas the general questions about who runs mills and for whom is a social-economic question, looking for underground ones specifically sounds like either a history-of-technology project or a literary one which wanted some extra references. In the last case, a digitised resource like CBMÆ would make a set of comparisons possible that otherwise one would have had to be Georges Duby or David Herlihy to realise, and it would certainly help get the others off the ground but would imbue them with an inevitable regional bias. Of course, preservation does that too, so I think my answer to your question is a qualified `yes’, qualified of course because I haven’t done the searches and don’t want to rule out that they just wouldn’t tell someone anything in the end.

  4. Pingback: Heavenfield Round-up 8: A Long Delayed Edition « Heavenfield

  5. Pingback: On the economics of tenth-century mills | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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